LOS ANGELES — Sonoratown’s not a secret anymore.
The little Fashion District restaurant earned renown from LA foodies in 2018, when it won KCRW and Gustavo Arellano’s inaugural Tortilla Tournament. Praise continued through the years and spiked recently when the restaurant competed with Mexicali and Tacos 1986 in a “Battle of the Bites” on actress Drew Barrymore’s eponymous daytime talk show.
The restaurant’s success is evident beyond the accolades — visitors will notice a steady stream of orders throughout the afternoon, awards have piled up on the walls and shelves, and a second location is in the works along San Vicente Boulevard in Mid-City.
Though the restaurant has earned a following, Sonoran style — borrowed from the Northern Mexican state of Sonora where restaurant co-owner Teo Diaz calls home — is arguably underrepresented in the Southland. While Mexican food is revered throughout Southern California, the flavors of Southern and Western Mexico have a strong foothold as late.
“I always wonder why Sonoran cuisine hasn’t really penetrated much farther into the U.S. than Arizona,” said Sonoratown co-owner Jen Feltham. “I’m glad to have had a small part in helping to spread the gospel of how delicious the food is in Northern Mexico!”
While the flavors of Southern Mexico are based in ancient traditions — the broad range of moles and spices in Oaxacan food can attest to that — Sonoran cuisine takes many of its cues from arid desert ranching and agricultural life brought by Spanish colonial settlers. Today, many of its qualities come from Sonora’s blending of cultures in a region where the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t a hard line but a blur.
“I’ve heard the reason why Sonoran beef is better than anywhere else is because of the specific flora that those grazing cattle are eating. But it’s beautiful because it echoes those other cuisines we revere,” Feltham said, comparing it to New York pizza, which is beloved for the water that composes its dough.
“It’s simple, and that’s been the guiding principle. That’s why our menu is so short: simplicity is so much better,” Feltham said.
Take Sonoratown’s costilla beef taco: the meat is rich, slightly salty and tinged with the flavor of mesquite smoke; a layer of avocado salsa offers a light creaminess, offsetting the heat of chile de arbol red salsa. It’s all wrapped in the restaurant’s most heralded weapon, the flour tortilla, made specifically from wheat grown in San Luis Rio Colorado, Diaz’s hometown. (The flour tortilla is what took the top prize in the 2018 Tortilla Tournament, and it’s not optional: corn tortillas are nowhere to be found in Sonoratown.)
It’s a dish that appropriately reflects the communities of the Sonoran Desert; though there’s a great tradition of culinary complexity in the Sonoran Desert (the Southern Arizona city of Tucson was named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the United States in 2016), there’s a beauty to simple food done perfectly.
Sonoratown’s customers seem to agree, inspiring Feltham and Diaz to expand their influence to Mid-City — the restaurant’s second location might open as soon as two to three months from now, Feltham said. But the husband and wife ownership team is staying humble despite their success.
“The fact that they liked our food was so perfect, it feels so charmed,” Feltham said. “I have no expectations that we will have the same sort of charmed opening in the new spot, but it’s been so great…I’m so excited to try Mid-City on for size.”